In memory of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who deeply felt and beautifully sang the song of Torah, Jewish life, and Hashem’s world.
Torah as Song
One would have expected the Torah to conclude with a seminal law or philosophical idea. Instead, it ends with Shirat Ha’azinu — with song. Chazal understood this usage of the term “shirah” as referring not just to Ha’azinu, but to the whole Torah. Like song, the Torah has many layers of meaning[i] and harmonizes variant voices.[ii]
Understandably, we express our appreciation of this aspect of Torah by singing Torah.[iii] And not just to one tune, but to many different ones. In the words of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks:
There are different tunes for different texts. There is one kind of cantillation for Torah, another for the Haftorah from the prophetic books, and yet another for Ketuvim, the Writings, especially the five Megillot. There is a particular chant for studying the texts of the written Torah: Mishnah and Gemarah… Jewish texts and times are not color-coded but music-coded. The map of holy words is written in melodies and songs.
We, the Singers
Man, the greatest of Hashem’s creations, creates music to accompany song. When describing the development of civilization, the Torah includes those who fashioned the first musical instruments.[vi] Music and song are central parts of man’s existence.
Though we sing many songs, our most important ones are about Hashem, His world, His miracles, and His assistance. Our world and our lives are full of Hashem’s presence. We show our appreciation to Him through song. Dovid Hamelech — the author of the “sweetest Jewish songs”[vii] — exclaimed: “I will praise Hashem with my life, I will sing to Him as long as I exist.”[viii]
We see how important this appreciation through song is from the fact that Chizkiyahu Hamelech missed realizing his destiny to become the Mashiach by failing to sing shirah to Hashem for saving him and the people of Yerushalayim from Sancheriv’s army.[ix] Chazal tell us that Chizkiyahu saw his Torah learning as enough; clearly, it was not.[x] Singing Hashem’s praises is a critical part of our relationship with Him.
Why is this so?
Song and music are important both in how they impact us, and in what they express.
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[i] See Ha’emek Davar (Introduction).
[ii] See Aruch Hashulchan (Introduction to Choshen Mishpat).
[iii] The Gemara in Sanhedrin (99b) teaches “zamer b’chol yom — sing (Torah) every day.” Furthermore, the gemara in Megillah (32a) tells us that not singing Torah implies that the chukim we have are no good.
[iv] 19:2 and many other places. See Otzar Hamidrashim (Rebbe Akiva 4) which explains that the declaration is through music and that Hashem would not have created the world without it.
[v] In birkot Kriyat Shema section of our tefillot we describe the angels singing to Hashem. Perek Shira describes how every part of creation sings to Hashem. Rav Nachman MiBreslov (LKM”H Batra 63) says that every blade of grass has its own song.
[vi] Bereishit 4:21.
[vii] Shmuel Bet 23:1.
[viii] Tehillim 146:1–2. See the Gemara in Sanhedrin (94b), where Shmuel asserts that the world was created for the songs of Dovid HaMelech. See also Tehillim 71:23. See also Otzar Hamidrashim (Rebbe Akiva 6 and Otiyot Rebbe Akiva 1).
[ix] Sanhedrin 94b.
[x] Medrash Shir Hashirim. See Sanhedrin 94b for a description of the intensive Torah learning during Chizkiya’s reign.